The Still Face experiment is one of the greatest psychology experiments to have ever been performed, and through its well-grounded replication* it is one of the sturdiest foundations for theory in any form of the social sciences, and a theory of social psychology that could not incorporate this observation would almost certainly fail to make any accurate predictions about macroscale society. Time and again in my speculating and theorizing on social feedback loops I come back to the Still Face experiment as an analogy for the patterns and regularities of individual and institutional behavior.
*The experiment is very easy to verify. Simply try it on any available infant. And yes, I understand that it appears suspiciously abusive. I’m not necessarily condoning the experiment.
The infant, receiving the expected feedback, continues to remain happy and show behaviors associated with positive regard to the mother; but, when the mother ceases to express any facial expressions whatsoever, the infant becomes wary without the expected feedback. As suggested by Tronick, one of the original academics to perform the study in the 70’s, “an adequate explanation of the still-face effect had to consider not only immediate experience but also the infants’ appreciation that the expected patterns of social interaction had been violated.”¹ The infant, dissatisfied, indeed truly distressed by this state of affairs, takes action by all learned means he knows to obtain the desired result. He amplifies his signaling slowly at first, but finding that still produces no feedback, he continues to amplify until he has exhausted all potential means of signaling to find the expected, and strongly desired, feedback; in this case, the affection and approval of his mother, to know that he is recognized and cared for.
It is not difficult to extrapolate this model of behavioral amplification to other everyday social interactions between adults. The difference is that adults have had more time to learn and adapt a plethora of social behaviors, and thus understand how to most appropriately amplify the power of one’s signal in everyday social contexts. This can make the effect of amplification less noticeable, as they have learned better how to modulate their behavior in order to amplify their signaling power which will produce the best social outcome; compare a teenaged girl threatening suicide to a man answering the phone with a “Hello? Hello..?” The former is clearly more dramatic, and thus represents a riskier escalation of signaling, as it may result in unwanted attention in the form of concerned and disciplining parents; teenage girls frequently threaten suicide in order to get attention, but not necessarily everyone’s attention. The former is no less a form of amplification of signaling power, but is many magnitudes lower in degree of strongest signaling strategies learned. The first hello, followed by the second with an inflection is a response to a lack of expected feedback; typically when you receive a call, you expect someone to respond after the first hello. Amplification of signaling power is, as you can see, of a morally orthogonal character; ”Excuse me’’ said as a means of getting a person’s attention is polite, while punching them in the face is not. The virtue of the behavior in question aside, the point is that this tendency to amplify signaling power in the unexpected cessation of feedback is an adaptive behavior.
This reflexive repetition is, as any heuristical behavior would be, not necessarily perfect, only good enough. Sometimes this repetition with amplification of the signal has significant and personally negative consequences; after all, some people really do kill themselves as part of a bid for attention.
In both interpersonal and institutional interactions, the employment of an amplification strategy to produce an expected and desired result will have either of three results; 1) the expected result obtains, 2) one gives up continuing to employ that behavioral strategy, or 3) negative consequences occur which forces the individual to stop its behavior. Sometimes the expected feedback just needed a little more push, and thus the repetition did happen to be truly instrumental in having a causal effect; sometimes the lack of expected result precipitates quitting or changing strategy; and sometimes they influence events through their signaling so as to bring harm on themselves. “Fighting words,’’ as it were. The strategy of amplification can be seen in the taunts leading up to a violent confrontation, countries threatening war, websites raiding and/or trolling each other, or corporations amassing patents, each being a signal of high strength and a strong claim of status, backed with the threat of physical, nuclear, digital, or legal means of resolving conflicts.
Forms of amplification which spontaneously order themselves and involve not strictly demarcated groups of people, such as nations or businesses, or even coherent signals, but those associated as a cultural group or thede, come in the example of Ferguson, Occupy Wall Street, and Chik-Fil-A Appreciation Day. In all cases, the formula is simple; initial action does not produce the expected result, so amplification of that behavior follows. The blacks in Ferguson had the belief that amplification of their protest via looting and rioting would bring reward, and perhaps it will. Occupy Wall Street was essentially a purely cultural phenomena, embedded completely within and inseparable from the general activist culture, explaining at once its failure and just what it is; it had no clear signals, as the signals themselves were revered as idols capable of producing second-order effects in the shape of appealing to the Powers That Be. It is a culture which is tapped into that fundamental willingness of humans to adapt behaviors they do not perceive any essential effect on the world, but do so in order to gain the approval of the group. Given the dependence of the individual on the group for the propagation of his genes, it is obvious social-historical evolution would select for an appreciable rate of credulousness, exploiting that heuristic of amplification through appeals to powers over-ascribed agency; religions which seek agricultural bounty in their gods and appeal to them through sacrifice and submission to the social norms associated with pleasing the gods.
Over time, the evolution of societies selected for those religions to survive which promoted the survival of its adherents. This might be considered how the instinct for religiosity developed, and the association of that sense of deeper power than what is immediately seen with particular symbols which help identify fellow adherents; the tendency to participate in and enforce social norms that have no obvious first-order benefit will arise over time simply due to groups which don’t being out-competed in the long run. However, the fate of the society is substantially determined by the initial social norms it adapts; to borrow from genetics, social norms are a society’s genotype, which interact with material conditions in the form of nature and competition with other cultures, groups, and religions. It is probably useless to speculate as to the exact figures, but it is clear that what is particular to humans is that the social conditions exerted by human forces have had more effect on sexual selection than nature likely since the advent of man. The propagation of your group simply by relying on nature is easy, but humans have filled their ecological niche to the point that outside growing the niche through continual mastery of nature the greatest pressure on shall mostly come from other individuals and groups.
The selection for conformity to the group so as to best ensure genetic propagation has proven so effective in humans that we have been able to put together societies composed of more than a billion relatively long-lived, resource intensive individuals. This has proven possible through the ability to transmit highly compressed information, allowing individuals to transfer knowledge about the environment and shape the behavior of other individuals on the object-level with enough reliability that we essentially don’t understand the complete inner workings of a society and all its essential parts and functions. We have abstract models which become too fuzzy to be used on the actual ground level of human individuals actually interacting with each other. This creates a double-edged sword which evolution might exploit; humans which remain reliably influenced by social pressures can help propagate their group through taking advantage of vaguely or completely unknown second- or nth-order effects, but any weaknesses in that meme relative nth-order effects it fails to adapt for will subject it to its own deterioration while the fabric of the society it once unified comes apart.
The nearer the memetic functioning of a society, i.e. that implicit aggregation of the behavioral orientiation of all the individual members, to Gnon, the more effectively shall those memeplexes be whittled away in order to more rapidly induce norms that partake of second- and third-order effects, which resulted in sophisticated societies of impressive size and perpetuity such as Egypt and Rome within a relatively short amount of time since the rise of civilization. At the same time, such a size and complexity can extend initially constructive memeplexes into nth-order cycles of history that it isn’t adapted to, e.g. secular cycles.
If a vision or purpose of a society’s memeplex comes to take prominence in the distribution of social and material capital in that society, and that particular vision is inordinately invested in a particular cosmology which is at odds with adaptive intergenerational feedback loops, that society comes face to face with Gnon. The desire for the impossible, set above all other things, will not initially reveal itself, for the full effects of slowly tearing at the social fabric may not reveal itself for generations; that is how important social norms are to the effective implementation of collective active solutions for game theoretic problems faced by society which have feedback cycles measured in generations of human lives. A project originally set about to settle some problem, applied from a flagrantly inaccurate model of the world, will fail to bring about its intended goal; indeed, in many ways no particular goal is ever intended by any concerted effort of a group, but occurs reflexively through a memeplex’s adaptedness to the vagueness of society’s [some vagueness is good, as it permits submission to optimal practices with higher-order benefits we don’t perceive] conditions.
Consider a memeplex an abstract set of behaviors; now consider that set of behaviors as a single, information-dense composite signal. Given the formula of amplifying a signal in the case that less powerful signals of that kind fail to obtain the expected result, this predicts that with the consolidation of a memeplex’s eschatological vision of society, and the more fanatically it is able to divert resources to bringing about its impossible eschaton, then the response to failure shall be to amplify. No other strategy is left for obtaining the desired result; and you can wail and wail to the face of Gnon, but Gnon’s face will always be still. The only means by which the memeplex shall be destroyed is through the discrediting of the memeplex with the destruction of its proponents; being the ur-theory of all theories, the conditions of its own falsifiability is usually thousands of inferential steps from the speculative power of any human being. This effectively guarantees that a society captured by a memeplex shall be ruled by that memeplex, for better or worse, until its dissolution into barbarism or destruction by a competing group.